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The Inside Story of How Noma Mexico Nearly Failed Before It Even Started

In his new book, Jeff Gordinier offers a revealing glimpse inside René Redzepi's globetrotting culinary adventures.

Jeff Gordinier Hungry Photo: courtesy Andre Baranowski

In the beginning, Jeff Gordinier was a skeptic. He was certainly far from being a convert to the ways of New Nordic cuisine. As a food writer for the New York Times earlier this decade, he’d seen food fads come and go. And all the earthenware plates and redcurrants and wood sorrel popping up around town was just another chapter in the endless cycle of reinvention and death in the New York restaurant scene. New Nordic would eventually be old. And then the high priest of the movement, René Redzepi, came calling.

The most influential chef of his generation, and the creative force behind the four-time winner of the World’s Best Restaurant, Noma, had arrived in New York to chat with Gordinier at a coffee shop in Greenwich Village. “It turned out he didn’t want to lecture me about the New Nordic movement, thank God,” Gordinier says. Instead, Redzepi was asking his fair share of the questions, about Gordinier and his upbringing in Southern California, where he regularly ate at taco trucks. By the end, Redzepi had heard what he needed to and he told the writer, “You seem like the perfect guy to go to Mexico with. We should go to Mexico and eat tacos.”

That conversation kickstarted a multi-year, multi-continent journey for Gordinier. He tailed Redzepi as he shuttered the restaurant that made him famous, took it on the road for ambitious pop-ups and then opened the reinvented Noma 2.0. The result is the engaging book Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World. Gordinier offers a glimpse into the charismatic leader of a culinary movement, Redzepi, that we rarely see, betraying a vulnerability and insecurity the outside world isn’t accustomed to witnessing. That’s because this view from the inside shows how tenuous the Noma Mexico pop-up had become in its lead-up, with Redzepi and his team having to confront the fact the temporary restaurant’s $600-per-person price tag could set off a Noma backlash that could sink them financially.

We sat down with Gordinier, to discuss Hungry, Redzepi’s gravitational pull with the people around him and how a skeptic became a convert.

You wrote that initial feature for The New York Times about your time together in Mexico well before the pop-up, but what kept you coming back to Redzepi?
I started to get intoxicated by not just the food at Noma but the whole energy of the mythology of it. It was almost like I needed a fix. The first time I ate there—it’s chronicled in the book—basically the Noma people said there’s a table, you have a seat, take it or leave it. Okay. I go on Kayak find a really cheap flight, move things around logistically in my life and go do it. And there was such wild exultation to the experience.

There’s something energizing about saying yes to something insane. Like, I really don’t have the money for this, I really don’t have the time for this, I really don’t have the emotional bandwidth for it. Let’s do it! And so, I kept doing that—going to the Australia pop-up was the same. I started to feel that I was almost self-medicating with these trips. I was depressed and I would go on these trips. It’s not the luxury of the food, per se, it was that sense of mission. It really had that sense of purpose. And it’s an extraordinary thing to be around. I found that kind of contagious.

Jeff Gordinier and René Redzepi

The author and his subject.  Photo: courtesy Katherine Bont

At Noma, you can tell the staff has an intense enthusiasm for what they’re doing. I went there with other people, and after we left, we looked at each other and said, “That was amazing—was that a cult?”
I had a lot of trouble figuring out the structure of this book because there were scenes in Norway, in the Bronx, in Mérida, [Mexico], in Oaxaca, in Copenhagen, in Sydney, in my home—I didn’t actually know how to stitch it all together. When it dawned on me that it was a cult narrative, everything flowed. Essentially, this book is the story of a man at midlife being lured into a cult. And that could be a positive.

A cult could be positive?
Understand I don’t mean this in a negative way, I just mean that he has that kind of energy where he gets a little like Tom Sawyer in the scene where he gets everybody to paint the fence. “You have to come with me. You can’t say no.” Your life feels enhanced by the experience, so why not? For terminal escapists like me, it was like being an alcoholic and confronting a telepathic bartender who knows exactly what you want to drink. He knows what I need and what I need is to hop on a plane and go to Mérida. It’s like you’re breathing a different kind of air. And it feels a little like Tony Robbins. Like I’m just happy that René never asked me to walk on hot coals. Because I probably would have done it.

And that became the basis of your book?
Gradually it dawned on me that René is just such a charismatic, fascinating character and that this period in his career was going to be the pivotal phase in his professional career, and it was going to go unchronicled. Do you know the documentary When We Were Kings about Muhammad Ali?

I love that movie.
I’m obsessed with it. I’ve seen it like 10 times. And also Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about Bob Dylan. I love these captured moments. It’s irreplaceable to me.

When We Were Kings

The inside story of the Rumble in the Jungle served as an inspiration.  Photo: courtesy Gramercy Pictures

There’s a different energy to stories like that.
Yeah, because you’re there. Like with Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you get the sense that you’re on the bus. So, I pitched René the idea of doing a book.

I also feel like this is a moment that may be ending. We may have already entered a different moment in food, but the moment we’ve passed through was a fascinating one. With Danny Bowien and Dave Chang and Rosio Sanchez and René Redzepi and Alex Atala. Part of what I wanted to do was capture that. The whole feeling of it. This moment of chefs being the most compelling people in the world for a while.

This would be your chance to show what happened as it really happened with René.
In the last third of the book it’s really interesting. That’s when I think I had the full freedom to travel with the Noma group and see a really unfiltered—somewhat unromantic—view of how hard it was to put Noma Mexico together and you see René essentially on the verge of a breakdown, if not having a breakdown. And also getting sick and battling to figure out how to pay for it after they lost the investment.

I want to delve into that a little deeper—because I don’t think I’d seen that reported anywhere until I read your book—and that is that Noma Mexico had a major investor pull out.
That’s why it cost so much. I feel like the criticism of the price tag is absolutely fair, but it is useful to know the context. They originally intended to charge like $250 dollars. Which is a lot of money, but a little more within the range we’re accustomed to.

I had just arrived, and I was trying to get in my hotel and I walked over to see them and the Noma team were in a state of panic on that day. René was completely uncensored, and he said they’d lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of promised investments.

Noma Mexico

Salbut with Dried Tomato and Chapulines from Noma Mexico  Photo: courtesy Mei Lin

Noma Mexico was in real peril.
It was basically a $1 million loss. It wasn’t taken away; it just wasn’t coming. He was terrified. They couldn’t stop the train.

Trump might have been to blame for some of this situation?
Somehow, that toxic churn of the election created the environment in which the investor rescinded the money. 

In that moment after the election, people thought Trump being president would crash the markets. It was a weird moment in time.
I think René almost had to go through the stations of the cross or whatever. He gets sick. They lose the money. He has to talk to the branding man. He was like in the wilderness being tempted.

The scene with the person you call the “Branding Man” is really interesting, because you show René having to deal with the idea of selling out his ideals in order to save this project.
That’s the type of material I wouldn’t have gotten if I had to do it from afar. Only by being there for days on end would I start to get that stuff because I was friends with him. I was like the fly on the wall. And one morning I just wander over when they’re having breakfast, René looks like he’s in a weird mood, and there’s this branding guy sitting there talking to him about doing deals and about how he could save them and solve their financial problems. Like this is amazing material. It’s Faustian, right? It’s happening in front of me. I just sat down you know and started writing. René never censored anything. He never once said don’t talk about this. Not once. Very liberating. So I think he was surprised maybe how unvarnished it is in that way. But he didn’t complain about it. He read the book and he didn’t ask me to change it.

How worried was he that Noma would go bankrupt?
That’s a good question…

Was it a moment where he was just letting off steam?
No, no, no, he meant it. He was very nervous. His worry was genuine. That wasn’t performative. I don’t know the deep finances of Noma that well, so I don’t know if he was just panicking. I know I panic about going broke all the time. I know the feeling and sometimes it’s unnecessary. You’re sort of having a panic attack for no reason. You will work it out. And I’m just sitting there thinking, “Yeah, but you’re René Redzepi, you’ll probably find a way to work it out.” It’s just that he didn’t want to do so in a compromised way or in a cheesy way. He wanted to make it work in a manner in keeping with Noma’s values. That was really important to him. Hence, he has the conversation with the branding man, but eventually decides not to work with him. And instead decided to bring in the Mexican women who made the tortillas, and you know that was a very interesting day to see him pivot in that way.

René is a guy on a pedestal in this world, so it was rare to see him vulnerable and legitimately worried about what people’s reactions would be—to see that an email from Eater’s Ryan Sutton could be very stress inducing.
I got to be a reporter watching the reporters for the first time. To see how nervous the Noma team got when [New York Times writer] Tejal Rao’s piece was about to go live. To see how Ryan Sutton’s questions about the cost—which were totally sensible, logical questions—were driving René up the wall. He knew the optics were complicated. I think that’s a big reason why Noma Mexico wasn’t the first. The first was Japan, then Australia, then Mexico. I think he was aware that if he began with Mexico it would be a more difficult endeavor. It would be more of an uphill battle from an optics prospective.

Noma Copenhagen vegetable kingdom

Dining at Noma 2.0  Photo: Jeremy Repanich

When he turned to his most trusted lieutenants, they reassured him, but did you ever feel the world that they’re in was like too insular?
Not too insular, but too intense. The Californian in me needed to go away sometimes and be with my thoughts. He’s so charismatic and he’s so on fire. The conversation never ends. He’s always gnawing on the next thing, and he’s always chewing on these questions. 

Did Noma crew exhaust you?
I got exhausted a lot. He always wants to talk about history. He wants to talk about provenance of different ingredients. His brain seems to be a sponge for trivia. You know what he always wants to do?

What does he want to do?
Gossip. He loves gossip. From all the different cities I’ve visited. “What chefs are on the rise? What chefs are on the downslide? What’s Freddy Berselius doing at Aska? Tell me about that restaurant.” He would kind of latch onto me and go vampire and ask me for all kinds of information of what’s going on in New York. He’s not just a great chef and a great storyteller. He’s like a Godfather. He’s connected through this neural network all around the world and wants to know everything.

Why is that?
He doesn’t do it in a judgmental way. It’s fact finding—reconnaissance. I think he reads all the major papers. All the major blogs. He doesn’t gossip in a salacious way. It’s just like give me intel. That’s sort of how he stays ahead of the game. He knows that the game keeps moving and the conversation keeps shifting. It’s like David Bowie in that respect. David Bowie had a new identity every six months. It’s like that. I think René knows he needs to keep changing. He needs to keep hitting. Keep creating. Destroying. Creating. Or otherwise he’ll just be done.

And you saw that manifest itself with Noma Mexico.
At that point, I’d spent three years with him. The first trip to Mexico I knew how deeply in love with Mexico he was and how this pop-up dinner had been on his mind for years and how much labor had gone into it all the research trips. And when it finally happened and it was a success, people were toasting him. Noma Mexico was being called the meal of the decade. At that point, he seemed to disengage. After all that work and stress, he just wanted to move on. It was so fascinating to me. Can’t you celebrate? Come on, man, have one shot of mezcal—treat yourself! Let’s dance on the tables! But he’s not really like that.

He’s in very difficult position with that. He has so many people copying him, that his ideas can look stale that much faster amid a sea of clones. He has to aggressively reinvent.
All this stuff we’re discussing, don’t think that René is not aware of it. René is aware of it, and he’s probably three years ahead of it. He knows where the conversation is happening and what’s being said. I hesitate on saying these things because I never want to make him look too heroic or too magical. He was joking with me at one point that I was like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, talking about the Marlon Brando character: “The man’s a God! The man’s a wizard! You don’t understand man! You gotta meet the man! The man’s a fucking God!” I don’t want to come off that way. He’s only human, but I do think some people are gifted with foresight. Some people are gifted geniuses. Like Beyoncé, like David Bowie, he’s very skilled at surprising us.

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